YAKIMA -- Business at Lynn Ruggles' automotive shop in Toppenish mirrors the national trend of an aging fleet of cars and trucks on the road.
He sees it every day -- older cars and trucks coming into his shop for routine maintenance and repairs.
"We're seeing the 10-year-old rigs, a lot of them," he said. "In our area, it's kind of a low-paying area, and the people can't afford to pay $20,000 for a vehicle, but they can spend a couple thousand on an older one to keep it going."
Most of them come in for routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tune-ups. The bulk of repairs these days consists of replacing electronic parts, such as fuel and air switches and even electronic modules that operate the vehicle's electrical system, he said.
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A quarterly report from Polk, a national auto data service, shows that it's not just people in rural Toppenish holding on to their cars. In the report, the average age of cars in operation is 11.1, and 10.4 for light trucks.
Cars on average have aged by a year over a five-year-period, and trucks have aged slightly more over the same period, the report found.
Considering that there are more than 240 million cars in the national fleet, the age increase in such a short time frame is significant, said Ron Hill, general manager of Mike Olson Dodge in Yakima.
"Years ago, we used to have an average fleet of about 7.4 years old," he said. "That's a huge change. It takes a lot of old cars to move that average by a year when you've got 240 million cars in operation."
Things aren't much different at Bob Hall's Sunfair Chevrolet in Yakima. There, the average vehicle coming in for service is about 8 years old with about 150,000 miles on it, said owner Bob Hall.
Although he specializes in new cars and trucks, used cars still make up the bulk of his sales.
"Obviously, people aren't replacing cars at the rate they have in the past," he said.
And the way they are made these days, they don't have to, experts say.
Improved technology and better oil refining is allowing engines to easily outlive the traditional 100,000- to 150,000-mile life-span, Ruggles said.
"I think a lot of workmanship they're putting into it to make them get better gas mileage and last longer -- they're just doing a better job," he said of manufacturers.
Hall said another factor is that people these days are better following auto service recommendations such as getting regular oil changes, "and (their vehicles) haven't been breaking."
It's not uncommon for vehicles these days to rack up more than 200,000 miles before needing any major repairs, Hill said.
"And people will buy used cars with 180,000 to 200,000 miles on them," he said. "People are really on to these older cars and they're lasting a lot longer so they can do it."
But there is more to the scenario than just longer lasting cars. An ailing economy has scaled back production of new cars, and with more people hanging on to their cars rather than buying new ones, there are fewer used cars to go around, said Hill.
For years, automakers overproduced, and many cars were purchased by car rental business, which would sell them for a good used price after they had racked up 10,000 to 15,000 miles, he said.
Production to those businesses from Chrysler alone shrank from about 200,000 a year to only about 50,000 last year, he said.
"That overproduction isn't there," he said. "The supply for used cars is very short, and used-car prices have soared."
Overall automotive production declined from about 16.5 million vehicles a year to about 10 million when the recession hit. Now, it has climbed to about 12 million, Hall said.
But the trend of an aging fleet may be short lived, as the forecast for auto production is expected to increase to about 13.4 million this year, he said.
Chrysler alone saw sales increase 37 percent last year, Hill said.
With people holding on to their cars longer, there are fewer to go around and used-car prices have climbed, said Bill Harris, owner of Bill Harris Used Cars in Selah.
And when the federal Cash For Clunkers program went into effect a few years ago -- it purchased old cars and sent them to the crusher to create demand for new cars -- the used car fleet was significantly reduced, he said.
More demand for used cars forces him to move prices normally in the $3,000 to $5,000 range to about $8,000 to $10,000, he said.
Now, he's selling more 2010 and 2011 models.
"To cover overhead, we had to get into the late model market," he said.
Rising used-car prices coupled with an increase in production should turn back the hands of time on the aging fleet, Hall said.
"It's driving the recovery of new cars," he said.